CAPS addresses new mental health needs due to COVID-19

Students+can+receive+virtual+counseling+from+CAPS.

Image: Sarah Moore

Students can receive virtual counseling from CAPS.

About a fifth of students visiting Mercer’s Office of Counseling and Psychological Services have sought counseling specifically because of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on their life, data kept by CAPS shows, underscoring the additional mental health challenges COVID-19 has caused at colleges across the nation.

“The anxiety that is associated with COVID — whether they are a student or not — has put us at a different baseline,” said Emily Piassick, director of CAPS. Piassick holds a doctoral degree in counseling psychology. “I’m not sure we have ever experienced anything like what we are experiencing right now within most of our lifetimes.”

While the Student Health Center’s new job administering COVID-19 testing on Mercer’s campuses is a more obvious change in on-campus health care in comparison to before the pandemic, CAPS has also seen COVID-19 cause increased mental health challenges on Mercer’s campus.

In April, a survey conducted by Active Minds, a nonprofit that raises awareness to mental health needs, found that 20% of college students surveyed reported “their mental health has significantly worsened under COVID-19.”

Similar conclusions were also reached in a study conducted by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Nearly one in five students surveyed said they face “constant” anxiety due to the pandemic, and 56% report experiencing at least some anxiety due to the pandemic. Additionally, 21% surveyed reported they were “very anxious” because of COVID-19.

At Mercer, Piassick sees the pandemic exacerbating some patients’ fears of the unknown as well as feelings of losing control. The pandemic has also added challenges in fulfilling students’ social needs, increasing feelings of loneliness and hopelessness among some students.

“I think it is causing a lot of stress and — for some people — a lot of chaos in them trying to navigate their way to what is best for themselves,” she said. “That’s when people will seek counseling: when things seem out of control and they need to make sense of everything.”

On top of that, the removal of breaks last semester caused many students to feel additional stressors as well.

“Condensed semesters definitely make things more intense,” Piassick said. “Changes in semesters and not having breaks are hard.”

Despite the research showing mental health needs growing as a result of the pandemic, Piassick said that she is unable to say if there has been an uptick in appointment requests. In comparison to other semesters, things are pretty consistent, she said.

This is because CAPS does not keep data on the number of calls it receives, Piassick said. Instead, CAPS tracks appointments for regular counseling and intake meetings, where counselors meet with new patients while new patients also get their paperwork in order.

As a result, students who decide not to follow through after making that call, either due to the wait time for an appointment or some other reason, are not tracked within those numbers.

“Our numbers fall semester 2020 were basically the same as they were in fall 2019 for students seeking counseling. We have not seen an increase in numbers of individuals requesting appointments,” Piassick said. “Now, the 20% that stated they came to CAPS due to stressors related to COVID-19 mentioned above may or may not have sought services if COVID wasn’t an issue.”

Additionally, with their staff of three counselors on the Macon campus, CAPS was already largely maxed out before the pandemic, meaning there was little room to add more appointments, Piassick said.

“There’s only so much time in a day,” she said. There’s really no more room to put more appointments.”

In recent years, Steven Brown, assistant dean for student services, thinks greater knowledge of mental health issues and more familiarity with counseling services prior to arriving at college has increased demand for counseling at Mercer and other colleges.

“The demand for counseling services on college campuses has steadily increased over the years,” Brown said. “Now, students are coming in with diagnosed challenges, are already on medication. And it does not mean they are a greater challenge — it means there is a greater need for individual therapy.”

With limited ability to add more appointments, Piassick and Brown have tried to pursue other avenues to address students’ mental health needs: outreach.

Before and during the pandemic, CAPS has added new outreach programming and continued improving existing programs to promote mental health and wellness.

Wellness Wednesday, an Instagram live series, was launched last semester to teach students about mental health and wellness strategies. For the spring semester, CAPS is working to increase its promotional efforts to make more students aware of the program, Piassick said.

Additionally, CAPS’ Sexual Assault, Hazing and Alcohol Prevention Education program is changing, increasing focus on wellness in their discussions of those issues, Piassick said.

CAPS has also collaborated with Mercer’s Office of Academic and Advising Services to add health and wellness education into the UNV 101 program, Brown said.

Brown said that CAPS and Mercer’s orientation programming are both crucial elements of how Mercer works to retain students.

“(There are) students who are gifted, students who are a very vital part of the Mercer community, but due to challenges they face — either on campus or at home — find it difficult to find the balance that is necessary to sustain their learning process,” Brown said. “CAPS plays a vital role in supporting those students so they can continue to work through whatever challenges they face.”

Mental health outreach helps CAPS address student wellness with the resources that they have, but Piassick is hoping that the administration will provide additional funding for the center next year.

“I think students respond well to student outreach activities,” Brown said. “But at this point, there is still a great demand for individual therapy.”

This year, Mercer added another counselor to the CAPS center on the Atlanta campus, and they are hoping to do the same in Macon in the future. Brown “is feeling confident” in funding coming through in the next budgetary cycle, but that still requires approval from the administration.

Brown also said they are looking to work with more medical interns and other local partners here in Macon to bolster CAPS’ services.

CAPS can be reached at 478-301-2862. There is typically a two-week wait time for an appointment, Piassick said, but CAPS is also able to accommodate emergency appointments for students in need.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidial thoughts, the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) can provide support.